The Georgia High School Association has a problem that isn’t easily fixed. The catch is, though, a deadline is looming and member schools want answers.
The state’s athletic ruling body is facing perhaps its most difficult reclassification period, which will start with the 2012-13 school year. Highlighting a myriad of issues is to find a solution to lengthy travel for region games.
Some teams, mostly in the southern part of the state and in Class A, have to spend four to five hours on a bus in the middle of a school week.
It is why the radical “4/8” plan was recently approved by the GHSA’s reclassification committee. The plan would shrink the current five classes to a four-class system for the regular season, in theory putting schools in regions with more schools closer geographically.
The four classes would split for playoffs, producing eight state champions in each sport. This would, again in theory, allow teams to compete for championships against schools closer in size. Currently in Class AAAAA, there is a 1,500-student difference between the biggest and smallest school.
Though an official vote to accept the plan was put off so the GHSA can better inform its members about it, the plan has a lot of support within the GHSA hierarchy. Northwest Georgia administrators and coaches, for the most part, still want to learn more before forming opinions.
“The jury is still out,” Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe athletic director and football coach Todd Windham said. “Right now, I’ve got more questions than answers. The plan is similar to the one in Tennessee, but the big difference is in Georgia they want to do it for all sports across the board. In Tennessee it’s just for football.
“To me, the real issues are threefold: travel, gate and competition. You weigh all three of those and see what’s best for your program.”
Those first two issues are connected in a way. Schools such as Region 7-AAAA’s Northwest Whitfield that have to travel 100 or more miles for region games often find themselves playing in front of sparse crowds. The same goes when they host teams that have to travel that far. Not only are these schools paying exorbitant amounts for fuel and keeping their student-athletes up late at night, but they aren’t making money from the gates since few fans are going to travel that far.
“I don’t know how some schools will survive financially,” Dalton girls’ basketball coach Jeff McKinney said. “With the way the economy is, fans aren’t going to travel.”
Dalton was with Northwest in 7-AAAA until this year when it was placed in 7-AAA with several closer schools. Instead of traveling to the Atlanta area for league games, Dalton was able to play against longtime geographic rivals such as Ringgold, Southeast Whitfield and Murray County.
“Whichever plan addresses the travel issue is the one I’m going to like,” said McKinney, who fears his school will be put in Class AAAA and again will face increased travel and lower gates. “This year we were able to play schools with good crowds, and not only did we make more money to help with the travel cost, it was much more enjoyable. I know Northwest this year had ballgames with very few fans on the other side.”
The best plan for northwest Georgia schools might be, several coaches say, to keep it like it is. With new school Coahulla Creek opening in Whitfield County this year, Northwest will lose students and likely fall to Class AAA, where it would join the rest of Region 7.
Region 7-AA, with three Gordon County schools, nearby Adairsville, North Murray, Dade County and LFO, doesn’t have travel issues. Region 6-A, which ranges from Gordon Lee in Chickamauga to Bowdon, will have travel issues regardless of the plan.
Given that, Calhoun athletic director and football coach Hal Lamb would prefer to see the approval of the other plan that’s been highly debated. Under a six-classification plan, the current Class AAAAA would be divided in two and the rest of the classes would be divided into four classes based on student population. It would basically leave northwest Georgia alone.
“To me, having eight championships in every sport just waters it down too much,” Lamb said. “Our region is fine when it comes to travel, and by dividing what is now 5-A into two classes, that would help take care of the travel and competition issues there. If they go with the other plan, suddenly half our schools are upper-2A and the other half lower-2A. Why would that be better?”
Dade County AD and football coach Bradley Warren has a different opinion. He supports the 4/8 plan and says the only thing holding it back is finalizing the logistics of holding eight championships in each sport.
“The plan addresses geographical travel and provides more equal enrollment for the playoffs,” Warren said. “It will put schools closer together in the regular season and will increase gates. But can we find enough places to hold the championships? If they can get that worked out, the plan will get voted in.
“My problem with the six-classification plan is it would leave Region 7-AA with 14 to 16 teams and we would again have to subdivide,” Warren added. “We shouldn’t have teams going 8-1 or 7-2 have to travel in the first round of the playoffs or missing out while schools with worse records make it. I just don’t think that’s the answer.”
Administrators and coaches will have several opportunities in the coming weeks to learn more about the plans. Two meetings will be held this week in the Rome area, with more sure to follow before a called GHSA meeting in either late April or early May will decide the issue. If no plan is approved, the current five-class system will remain.
Of course, going from the current five to eight championships in each sport would increase revenue for the GHSA, a reason many coaches believe the 4/8 plan will be voted in regardless of lingering issues. Dalton’s McKinney, for one, just hopes sports other than football will be considered when it comes time to vote.
“Most of the talk centers around football, and we all understand football generates a lot of money,” he said. “But football coaches don’t have to worry about having to travel 200 miles on a Tuesday night and have kids that have to go to school the next day. If that kid has a test that day, he or she’s in trouble.”
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...